Updated: Sep 15, 2020
In recent years, 3D printing technology has surged, and its promise is far-reaching. Open-source prosthetics printed on 3D printers help to restore functionality for those who have lost limbs. Drones, cars and even homes have been built with 3D printers.
But this technological advance also threatens to intensify the amount of plastic waste that we deposit into landfills, or worse, the ocean, and Team Omicron, a group of engineering students from George Fox University, has developed a way to reuse it before it leaves the printing lab.
“We found out that the engineering lab, personally, we contribute a lot of plastic waste with 3D printers when it fails,” said Kaylee Rutherford, a senior studying mechanical engineering. “And that’s what dove us into finding a way to lessen that plastic.”
When developing their project, Team Omicron, which will compete in this year’s Invent Oregon Collegiate Challenge, looked at what contributes the most plastic waste on campus. Once they identified their 3D printing lab, Omicron developed a device that could harvest failed or discarded prints and recycle them.
“It's basically a filament extruder,” Rutherford said. An extruder takes old, failed prints after they are ground down, melts them and repurposes them to make new plastic filament. From there, it will be respooled and reused in the 3D printers. “Plastic can be continuously reused instead of just being like, oh, I printed this. It failed halfway through,” said Megan Dyer, an alum of George Fox’s mechanical engineering program. “So instead of wasting that kind of stuff, we can just melt it down and reuse it.”
Omicron evolved out of George Fox’s servant engineering program, a junior-year curriculum designed to build engineering experience by solving community problems. The team also includes Tahnisha Manibusan and Nick Armour, both seniors in biomedical engineering.
An industry survey performed in the U.K. by a 3D printing company called Filamentive estimated that 6 to 19% of plastic used in 3D printing is wasted. At the University of California, Berkeley, estimates suggested that more than 100 campus 3D printers produced more than 600 pounds of plastic waste annually as of 2017. Comparatively, George Fox has fewer 3D printers, and by those numbers it produces more than 70 pounds of plastic waste each year, and growing, from more than a dozen 3D printers.
Extrapolate this across public and private institutions like other universities, research labs, and at-home prototypes, and the issue of plastic waste quickly becomes a concern. In total, almost 27 million tons of plastic were landfilled in the U.S. in 2017. Only a fraction of total plastics used, about 8%, are recycled. The numbers are too large to comprehend, and while 3D printing comprises only a small fraction of plastic used, Team Omicron has found a way to minimize its own waste.
Once used, plastic printed in the engineering lab is simply thrown away. But the waste from 3D printing is a byproduct of an otherwise indispensable part of the creative process.
Rutherford and her fellow engineering students use 3D printers in the engineering lab to concept and prototype various inventions. “3D printing is really good for prototyping in general,” said Tahnisha Manibusan. “It's really nice to be able to make a product that you can get the gist and see if it will actually work or if the design is right before you spend a lot of money trying to use sturdier materials.”
“Everyday she could print something new and see how it changed and helped her,” Rutherford added. “She could have a physical object in her hand and do a rough use of it to see how it would hold up. If she were to have to actually machine it out of metal, it would have taken way longer.”
In other words, 3D printing technology isn’t going anywhere—and neither is the plastic waste that it produces. Finding a way to recycle it is essential.
“PLA takes almost 100 years to biodegrade,” said Nick Armour. PLA stands for polylactic acid, the type of plastic that is most widely used in 3D printing. “It adds on to just all the other microplastics in the world that are currently an issue in the oceans. And with wildlife. So just getting even one tiny section of plastics out of the way can make that much of a difference in the end.”
The benefits are clear: Not only will old plastic find a new use and stay out of landfills and oceans, labs will also save on the cost of virgin plastic. But the peace of mind is important, too.
PLA has the ability to be melted down, a property that makes it ideal for printing applications. Its melting point also makes it recyclable, and Rutherford and her team developed a device that will do just that.
“It was just that thought of like, well, look, I contribute this waste, but I don't know where it goes after I'm done with it,” said Rutherford. “I hand it off to someone else. It disappears out of my hand and it's not my problem anymore.”
“We can actually physically see that we're recycling it and we're seeing the end result of it versus sending it off to someone else who hopefully ends up reusing it or recycling in the way they say they're going to.”